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FILM: Don’t Feel Sorry For Julia Roberts March 30, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Duplicity‘s lukewarm box office showing doesn’t have anything to do with her age.


By Aymar Jean Christian

I saw Duplicity this weekend, and, like everyone else, I liked it. It’s a smart and stylish corporate caper, and a great vehicle for Julia Roberts. She chose her comeback well.

But the stage is set for a Roberts pity party. Why? Because poor old Duplicity didn’t debut at #1 last week—this week, its gross has dropped almost half and dropped to fifth place. Knowing and Race to Witch Mountain beat it out in the box office. Maybe, in this economic climate when going to a movie is a welcome escape, Americans probably just wanted to spend more money on flashier, more frivolous fare—special effects offer more bang for the buck. It seems critics and publications all over the Internet are intent on making Duplicity‘s poor showing about Roberts’ age.

Don’t buy it!

No doubt, Hollywood is a rough place for older women—and women in general. A cursory look at last year’s top-grossing movies shows that vast majority are either children’s movies or male-led. It’s always been this way.

Yet Hollywood makes a lot of money from older women, as opposed to less-predictable younger ones. Meryl Streep, for instance, has been on a career high in the past few years. Both Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia! made obscene amounts of money, nearly $1 billion for those two movies alone. Diane Keaton (Something’s Gotta Give), Helen Mirren (The Queen) and Diane Lane (Nights in Rodanthe) have had their recent successes too.

Perhaps women who are transitioning, as Roberts is, from young to old (two different markets), have the bigger problem. But that argument doesn’t hold water, either. The 11th highest grossing movie of last year in the U.S. was Sex and the City: The Movie. I was shocked and delighted at how many people of all ages were eager to see a movie where every woman was over 40—at the end of the film, single Samantha turns 50. Part of the genius of Sex and the City, it’s been remarked, was that it created the fantasy that women can get more beautiful and glamorous as they age. People love to see that. Without a doubt, actresses near or already 40 have had success both on the big and small screen: Jennifer Aniston, Tina Fey, Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry, Cate Blanchett, Teri Hatcher, Calista Flockhart, to name just a few.

Some argue that Roberts is simply old-fashioned, not old. Given Aniston’s success, I don’t see how that’s a viable argument. It may simply be that Julia Roberts has changed too much or lost her relevance. All actors need to stay active to remain relevant and headline popular movies, and Roberts does look different now. Her face has grown subtly harsher, but, in my opinion, much more beautiful and sophisticated. A similar thing happened to Meg Ryan, who, presumably because of plastic surgery, became less relatable as she aged. It’s one reason among many The Women didn’t do well at the box office. Maybe America simply decided it doesn’t like her anymore. Just look at Nicole Kidman.

Hollywood is a harsh business, audiences are fickle, and the box office is unpredictable. There are many reasons Julia Roberts may not have the draw she once had. I still think she has potential for further success, but even if she has lost it, I think age is a much less significant cause than the regular phenomenon of a celebrity suddenly losing their power in an age where stars are a dime a dozen.

FILM: (500) Days of Summer: Review March 27, 2009

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(500) Days of Summer Cuts Through Cynicism

The festival hit is a charming romantic comedy that does well by the maligned genre. (Grade: A-)


By Aymar Jean Christian

Making an original romantic comedy is like making original chocolate chip cookies. There are a lot of decent chocolate chip cookies in bakeries around the world, but not many original ones. Too few ingredients to choose from and not much wiggle room. So when a rom-com approaches perfection, a critic has to shrug off the hype and clap his hands.

(500) Days of Summer is that kind of film, much-hyped yet still deserving. Haters will say it’s too cute by half, a cheap remix of Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, or, with its killer soundtrack, Garden State. I won’t lie; it is those things. It is the kind of movie that lends itself to this kind of review: “…it is a fairly unoriginal, quite conventional movie that is designed to specifically appeal to people who think they’re very original and not at all conventional.” Huh? (500) Days of Summer is so well choreographed and consciously adorable it will attract these kinds of haters. Some would even call it pretentious, with its glaring shout-outs to everything from Belle and Sebastian to The Seventh Seal.

I say shut up and just admit you enjoyed it. Let’s be real: (500) is an undeniably well-written, well-edited, witty, slick, charming and stylish. You will love it. Let yourself go.

(500) follows the relationship between two people in Los Angeles. As in Alex Holdridge’s In Search of Midnight Kiss, director Marc Webb’s L.A. is a cozy city where people take public transport. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a believer in true love, while Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is a third-wave feminist of sorts who just wants to have fun. Like the recent Reprise, we experience their relationship in fast-paced pieces, jumping from the beginning, middle and end in a random order. This piecemeal, time-based approach to filmmaking encourages the comparisons to Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally, but Tom and Summer’s romance is much more casual and complicated than the ones in those movies. It’s never really clear they’re in a relationship, or that she likes him. We are meant to believe they have a connection because the both like The Smiths and share other obscure interests. It’s the Facebook way of dating: if your profiles match up, you go out. The movie feels fresh and should resonate with anyone under 30 who has dated anyone in the past decade. The randomness of the whole process, matched by the film’s grab-bag style, is spot-on.

Their relationship is so random I won’t venture a summary. I will say that rising indie stars Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt mesh well. He is, as we’ve come to expect (The Loookout, Brick, Mysterious Skin) familiarly sullen, and she is, as we’ve come to expect (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Yes Man) familiarly sunny and aloof. Once again, it’s all very cute, but still very believable.

Some of my pet-peeve alarms did sound. The first is the focus on Tom’s feelings and existential trajectory. I’m yearning for more skillful indie rom-coms like this to give equal footing—if not primary footing—to the psyche of the female lead. There are examples, of course, most notably Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress and Jennifer Westfeldt’s films. But the whole “I’m a twentysomething male who’s in a job I hate and can’t find the right woman” is so clichéd, so Two Lovers and Zach Braff, it’s starting to rub me the wrong way. According to these movies, young men today are completely impotent and weak (think of the movies mentioned in this review, including In Search of Midnight KissReprise, any Braff movie, add in Judd Apatow’s films) and women are abrasives bitches ((500) literally starts by calling a woman a bitch) who at first want sex and careers, only to marry someone else when they turn 30. One character in (500) calls Tom “gay” for having feelings, and later in the film Tom bites back at Summer saying: “You never wanted to be anybody’s girlfriend and now your somebody’s wife.” Translation: die third-wave feminist bitch! It’s a bit reductive.

But it gets points for sidestepping many more of my other pet peeves, including those crimes committed by the other “young indie relationships” genre, mumblecore. The characters are appropriately driven to succeed—unlike many mumblecore depictions—and well dressed. They are believable, both in how poised they are and, at the same time, how clueless they are. I saw a lot of my friends and myself in (500)‘s characters.

(500) is a solid answer to what many unmarried, urban twentysomethings are asking for in their romance films. Even when it’s waxing fantastical or being a bit too playful, it’s still sharp and funny. I’m sure it will find an audience this summer among those who’d rather not brave the new Harry Potter movie (its competition July 17). For Annie Hall circa 2009, (500) is near flawless.

FILM: Tokyo! Review March 13, 2009

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Kafka in Japan

Tokyo! is easily the weirdest movie in the recent trend of omnibus films. (Grade: C)


By Aymar Jean Christian

Why the sudden interest in shorts and cities? This year’s Oscar-nominated short films have made over $600,000 in just about a month, which is an incredibly large amount of cash for a genre that never makes any money at all (some claim iTunes is changing that). Paris, je t’aime, meanwhile raked in a few million two years ago, and its producer is releasing a “sequel,” New York, I Love You, shortly. (I can’t wait.)

Tokyo!, a three-part compilation by directors Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho, openly exploits this trend: “In the tradition of such films as New York Stories, Night on Earth, Paris Je T’Aime and its forthcoming sequel New York, I Love You, Tokyo! addresses the timeless question of whether we shape cities, or if cities shape us.” Why the sudden interest in cities? Maybe it’s because none of us can afford to live in them anymore.

Unlike Paris, je t’aime, which had more realistic or at least pseudo-realistic vignettes, Tokyo! is all Kafka: surrealistic and strange. Michel Gondry turns a young woman into a chair; Leos Carax creates a goblin terrorizing the city; and Bong Joon-ho imagines a man who never leaves his house. It’s a mix bag—typical for short collections of this sort—that actually works as a film. Unfortunately, not all of the parts deliver the goods.

The star on this trio is Bong Joon-ho (director of The Host), whose short is quiet, controlled and perhaps the most revealing about Tokyo and urban life in general. The issue is hikikomori, a phenomenon prevalent in Japan in which people reside in their homes for weeks, months, even years. Bong’s protagonist has not left his house for over a decade. Of course, modern urban life allows for this kind of phenomenon. In the city, everything can be delivered, from food to laundry, even love can be found without leaving the house—though Bong avoids this convenience (our protagonist must leave to find love). With Bong’s treatment, his amber tones and carefully constructed angles, we understand why someone would want to stay inside: there is order indoors, a kind of perfection, unlike the outdoors, crazy as the weeds that envelope the hikikomori’s house. Committed to staying inside, he treats his practice as much as an art as a way of life. Much like the hunger artist in Kafka’s short story, the hikikomori deprives himself of something the world takes for granted: the chance to venture out into the world. His dedication to doing what we cannot makes us all the more aware of what we do instinctively.

Next is Carax’s “Merde”—French for “shit”—In which the French director creates a monster for our times: a sewer-dwelling, hideous creature that initially bothers pedestrians with petty acts of theft but escalates into violent mass killing. The analogy to the modern jihadist is clear and undeniable. Once arrested, the goblin cannot be understood; we don’t know why he does what he does. Only three people in the world understand his language, and none live in Japan. After a drawn out trial and tortuous (to watch) interrogations, we do find out why he kills, but it doesn’t mean much. Carax is dead-on, if not a bit heavy-handed, about how a culture treats those it cannot understand and whose very existence and actions challenge it. It’s not a brilliant observation, really. The tyranny of the state and its society is well documented. But Carax captures our current moment perfectly. If only he’d taken a bit more from Kafka and paced it quicker, with a touch more whimsy.

When Kafka changed his everyman into a large insect, he perfectly channeled the anxieties of modernization in the Western world. If only Gondry were as sharp. In turning a young woman—who is unspectacular, untalented, unambitious—into a chair, Gondry barely stirs a feeling from his audience. Always playful, Gondry’s short is bizarre enough to please fans (of which I am one) but uninteresting in retrospect. A short film does not need to be many things: witty, insightful or well-crafted are the basic expectations. Gondry achieves none of these, though he comes very close the latter. After it was over I asked myself, “Who cares?” and quickly forgot it. A metamorphosis should signify something significantly; otherwise, why bother?

Tokyo! is worth it if you love surrealism, Japan and quirky filmmaking. If you don’t, just read Kafka.

TV: How Not to Fail a TV Show March 12, 2009

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TV: How Not to Fail a TV Show

The series finale disappointed fans. Why?

The series finale disappointed fans. Why?

By Aymar Jean Christian

You may not know we lost an important show this past week: The L Word. The series was among the most inconsistent on television. Each season would have a new focus and tone; characters would completely change personalities; wardrobes would magically improve. Still, it was a landmark, well-acted show that served us well.

But now its fan base is all shook up over the series finale. The final season was a “whodunit” mystery that in the end did not answer its original query, “Who killed Jenny?” Me: I say it’s pretty clear the lesbian movie star did it, but whatever. People want closure.

But do we really? Sometimes, closure is boring; sometimes we desperately need it. Who cares who killed Jenny? We all wanted her dead.

Here’s my five-step guide to ending a successful series. With popular shows ER and Scrubs ending this year, and several others either on the chopping block (Ugly Betty) or abruptly cut off and expected to air final episodes (Pushing Daisies, maybe Lipstick Jungle), the networks need my advice. Desperately.

1. Stay away from non-narrative montages
: The L Word did this and it was lame. They showed all the characters walking across the Los Angeles skyline like divas on a catwalk, set to show’s rock-and-roll theme song. What? Mortal enemies were smiling at each other. People who’d just broken up were holding hands. It made no sense. Lipstick Jungle‘s abrupt, alleged series finale tacked on a two-minute “best of” montage. How patronizing. Just end the damn thing.

2. Bring back old characters: Everyone says this is cheesy, but admit it, you love it. The much-derided Seinfeld finale did this well. I know, don’t hang me; I actually liked the Seinfeld finale. For shows with lots of small, recurring characters, it allows us to reminisce, if done smartly and with finesse.

3. Don’t get Ross and Rachel back together: Try not to pair two star-crossed lovers in the end if it’s what viewers are expecting. The Friends finale was boring as hell. Ross and Rachel get together? Get out! Sex and the City‘s finale did this, but did it well: there was no guarantee Carrie would end up with Big—HBO had shot two other endings, presumably one in which she’s single. Plus, they shot it well: Carrie walked alone in the final shot, the implication being that she’s still an independent woman. Closure, in this case, was skillfully accomplished. Ross and Rachel: closure to please the crowd.

4. Be boring, if you must
: I’m not a Sopranos fan (I never caught up), but it seemed to me that, for such a dramatic show, a dull ending was thoroughly appropriate. Complicated shows sometimes need ambivalent endings. Often doing the right thing means giving fans what they don’t want. This only works for high-concept or artful TV shows. ER, this is not for you.

5. Go out for coffee: The best endings are often the most intimate and simple. Here again, Seinfeld got it right: the last shot of the four friends talking about nonsense in a jail cell was fitting and charming. Ditto for Will & Grace, in which Will and Grace reconcile after years of estrangement by going out for coffee. Heaven.

Perhaps there are no rules for a series finale. Maybe the best rule is for the fans: expect nothing. If it’s good, you won’t expect it. If it’s bad, you were prepared.

FILM: Review: Explicit Ills March 11, 2009

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Explicitly Relevant: Explicit Ills

Babo, in Explicit Ills

Babo, in Explicit Ills


Mark Webber’s slice-of-life film, despite its rough edges, is an engaging take on contemporary issues such as gentrification and health care.(Grade: B+)

By Aymar Jean Christian

If Watchmen is any indication, it’s really hard to create a film that’s relevant 20 or 30 years after its source material’s release. This is especially true of films about politics. We don’t like politics in art; most of us would rather have it on the side.

This is what makes debut director Mark Webber’s Explicit Ills so gutsy, even more so because its topic is ripe for preachiness. A tagline of the movie could read: “A movie about a disadvantaged community’s struggle for health care reform.” Ick! Boring, right? No. Preachy? Only a little bit, and certainly not over the top.

Explicit Ills follows the lives of several dwellers of “inner city” Philadelphia, even though it really isn’t the inner city anymore. “Inner city” Philadelphia—the most central part of it, where I live—is now the domain of luxury condos and million-dollar brownstones. The parts of Philly shown in Explicit Ills are places I’ve largely never seen before.

The film revolves around Babo, an adorable and intelligent little boy, who doesn’t have many friends but tries his hardest to be nice to everyone—he buys the school bully a new pair of $100 sneakers, the money for which he got by picking up shit for a local vendor. The film follows the struggles and hopes (with a focus on the hope) of the people in Babo’s neighborhood: a young orphan we can imagine as an older Babo who tries to impress a girl who likes “smart” boys; a middle-class black family who are into yoga and health food who are trying to open a store; a young white painter and her pot dealer who do lots of drugs and party, all on daddy’s dime; a young kid who wants to be a body builder; and an actor who befriends Babo.

Throughout, the film is subtle and caring with its narrative, so subtle one starts to wonder where the politics come in at all. At first, all of the “activism” is thankfully in the background, until trauma thrusts it into the foreground about midway through. Webber takes pains to avoid stereotypes. Working with great actors who don’t hog the spotlight—Dano, Rosario Dawson, Lou Taylor Pucci, The Roots’ Tariq Trotter—his characters come off as incredibly sincere. We care about them. This is important, because by the end, when their stories converge, the shift to politics could have been jarring and contrived if not for our connection to them.

Webber is a lucky man. Not only is Jim Jarmusch backing his first flick, but Roots collaborator Khari Mateen gives him a relevant and atmospheric soundtrack. The Roots are much-beloved in Philly, and dedicated and accessible to its citizens. So in more ways than one, Explicit Ills is a very Philadelphia-feeling film. More so than other cities, Philadelphia feels neighborhood-y. Still affordable in many places, with its small streets and low-level rowhouses, it’s humble and charming, making it a believable setting for a narrative about community activism (this story would be much less believable in New York, D.C., Atlanta or L.A., but perhaps more so in Baltimore or San Francisco). Webber makes the most of Philadelphia, and the film looks gorgeous, saturated, crisp and airy.

It is not perfect. Webber has a bit of problem connecting the two (presumably) gentrifying white kids to the rest of the community. Their political involvement seems spurious and random. Webber wants to believe in cross-racial and cross-class social and political activism. He’s diehard believer, it’s clear. Yet while those magical things happen in real life at times, it’s very hard to show on film. The process is slow and chaotic. A film as firmly ideological and intellectually simple as, say, Battleship Potemkin, perhaps the most famous “people rioting” film, is too emotionally flat for today’s audiences. Given that, Webber comes far closer to complexity than I expected he would. Filming politics is a tall order, so he gets points for trying.

Will Explicit Ills be relevant 20 or 30 years from now? Hard to tell. But it is certainly on time now: How lucky for Webber that President Obama is pushing the health care issue at this very moment. From today’s perspective, his passion, rooted in a concern for all people—rich and poor, black and white—feels very much on point.

FILM: Holy Box Office! March 9, 2009

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Madea Goes to Jail and Taken are raking it in! Madea has made $76 million and Taken nearly $200 million since being released. Those are crazy numbers for what are essentially small blockbusters – Madea catering to a black audience and Taken a French-directed film with a British star.

Can I also mention that both Slumdog Millionaire ($200 million+) and Paul Blart: Mall Cop ($130 million+) are still topping the box office months after opening!

My point is: after the dismal box office showing of most Academy Award nominated films, maybe Hollywood will get the point and spread out their movie releases around the year. Tyler Perry has played this strategy well every year, and it keeps working for him: release Madea flicks when all the other studios are dumping their crap on the public. With no competition, these movies are making a killing, while blockbusters duke it out in summer and critics-picks beat each other to death in the fall. Movie buffs want good movies all year round! Give it to us!

TV: The Importance of Being Pretty March 3, 2009

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UPDATE (7/30): EW‘s Ausiello now confirms an extensive Betty makeover is being tested among audiences by ABC! A month after I wrote this original piece, Silvio Horta, the brains behind Betty, suggested these changes would be on the way.

UPDATE 2: Ugly Betty moving to Fridays, after ABC flirted with canceling it.


If you care about TV ratings, you know about 18-49 year olds. They, apparently, are the only people in America who watch primetime television and buy anything. If you’re older, you don’t spend money, except on cruises. If you’re younger, you only watch Miley Cyrus.

If you want to know whether your favorite TV show will survive, watch the 18-49s. TV by the Numbers , also known as Nirvana for TV junkies, compiles a list of shows likely to be cancelled or renewed based on the show’s relative performance among its network’s 18-49 demographic.

One such show on the chopping block is Ugly Betty. Among the shows on ABC that still have a pulse, Betty ranks among its poorest performers among 18-49 year olds. I watch the show religiously, but I’m loyal like that. If I commit to the first season of a show, I’ll stick through it until the end. Most people aren’t so loyal. This is odd. Betty is an ideal 18-49 show. So why is Brothers and Sisters beating it?

From a member of the 18-49, I’m going to give ABC-and any other network-some advice on how to revive a how. It’s simple: make Betty pretty.

People want to see pretty people on television. Sorry, it’s just the truth. How else do you explain Grey’s Anatomy and, even more mysteriously, Desperate Housewives beating Betty in the key demo? On those shows, everyone’s pretty! There’s someone for everyone. (Me: Kevin McKidd and Charles and Max Carver; I like redheads.)

Betty needs a makeover. Sure, people stuck with the show in the beginning because the writing was good, the concept was fresh, and let’s be honest, the end of Sex and the City and the release of The Devil Wears Prada left a stylishly big hole in our hearts.

But those days are over, and it’s getting a little tired to watch Betty in the same glasses and braces-braces still!-wearing mismatched designer clothes. (The great Patricia Field does the costuming, so it’s expensive but “poorly” put together. Does ABC think we’re stupid?). Young people care about fashion. It’s folly to think otherwise. A smart girl like Betty would’ve bought contacts, removed the braces and paid for a new hairstyle by now. Plus, no one in New York, even girls from Queens, dresses that badly. Yes, the show is all about exaggeration, but this form of exaggeration is grating to the eye. Betty’s appearance is made even more obvious since everyone around her is becoming ever more fashionable; even ugly duckling best friend Christina is now voguish.

Ugly Betty was a good idea, but as the rating show, making her pretty is the only way to stay on the air.